Review by C.J. Bunce
Plumes are cool. I wear a plume now.
This week the Doctor and friends turn up at the very event that was the real-life origin point of Doctor Who, the series, and in fact all of science fiction: Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s summer at the retreat at Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in Switzerland in 1816. It was the historic “year without a summer,” believed the result of volcanic ash in the atmosphere. More importantly for the future of science and technology and science fiction, it was the convergence of celebrity that resulted in Mary Shelley’s spark to write her novel Frankenstein, the first science fiction novel and–notable for fans of all things borg–the first borg novel.
Only this is Doctor Who, and so something is different, as one of the famed guests of the villa is missing. In its 56 years some of Doctor Who’s greatest episodes have featured a re-look at historical places and events, and the fantastic new episode, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” may top them all. The events of 1816 are well documented and writer Maxine Alderton (The Worst Witch, Emmerdale) used them to create the perfect blending of Doctor Who and history. Directed by Emma Sullivan, Alderton’s story is expertly designed to weave together even the obscure historical facts and figures with the fantastical, while foreshadowing the focus of the season’s remaining episodes (find a peek at that below). Just as the story of the creation of the first science fiction story takes center stage (also one of the early Gothic horror tales), so does the world inside Shelley’s novel peer into the world of the Doctor.
Save the poet, save the universe.
In a word, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” is perfection, as the seed of all science fiction meets its latest incarnation both from within the universe of Doctor Who and viewing Doctor Who from the outside as a work of science fiction itself–delivering a perfect threat to a single point in time that, if altered, changes everything thereafter and could obliterate the world as the Doctor–and the viewer–knows it. Plus… a haunted house, ghosts, and a decision that could throw the future into chaos?
The writers seem to love Bradley Walsh’s very dialect-rich Graham the best, again giving him some of the best dialogue of the episode. The chemistry between Jodie Whittaker′s Doctor and Lord Byron’s Jacob Collins-Levy (The White Princess) practically begs for follow-up stories. Mandip Gill′s Yasmin and Tosin Cole′s Ryan jump back in for their next journey meeting the likes of historical figures Mary Shelley (Lili Miller), Percy Shelley (Lewis Rainer), Percy’s doctor Dr. John Polidori (Maxim Baldry), and Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont (Nadia Parkes). It’s refreshing and amazing that a story first published 202 years ago can have such impact and be revisited and adapted so well so far into the future. If you want to learn more about Villa Diodati, check out the fantastic book Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (reviewed here at borg).
Words matter. One death, one ripple, and history will change in a blink.
Commercials for the series have already previewed the “big bad” of the rest of this season, and we meet the first of the dreaded villains in this episode. Not the cyborg Daleks, but the cyborg Cybermen, specifically the Lone Cyberman, and the redesign is gorgeous. Credit for 19th century garb and a superb upgrade of classic sci-fi tech is due to costume designer Ray Holman (Torchwood, Fleabag, Sea of Souls), whose work is key in leading into the season’s two-part finale beginning next week. Patrick O’Kane (Game of Thrones, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) plays the next generation of Doctor Who’s borg–a chilling new version of the classic race. Fans of the trope “creepy little girls” may want to be on the lookout in this episode, too.
This banner season has provided some smartly written sci-fi stories (including the season opener “Spyfall,” “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror,” “Praxeus,” and “Can You Hear Me?”) restoring Doctor Who with a season faithful to the pre-reboot era, with fun rollercoaster ride scenes like we haven’t seen since the Matt Smith/Karen Gillan seasons.
Witness some of the most enlightened minds of a generation at the very zenith of their creativity.
If you are only dropping in on this season of Doctor Who, you’re missing some of the best episodes of the series in years, and last night’s episode may rate in your list of top episodes of all. Set your DVR to catch “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” as it pops up again this week on BBC America and BBC Two in the UK. It’s brilliant science fiction and Doctor Who storytelling.